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Yesterday, Unilever released the latest refresh to its Sustainable Living Plan with yet another subtle headline [don’t blame them for being European]: Unilever Expands Sustainable Living Ambition.

And once again it is seeking to set a mindset shift.

Besides a metrics update that started at the beginning of the month with the announcement that the company had successfully reduced the rate of diarrhea among children from 36 percent to five percent through its Lifebuoy branded handwashing campaign ‘Help A Child Reach 5,’ the company announced its decision to step away from calling the Plan, well, a Report.

A Plan That Is Meant to Evolve

As Chief Marketing Officer Keith Weed told me:

“The Living Plan is meant to evolve. Today, we’re engaging more, we’re collaborating more. We’re not writing a separate report any longer. And I’m proud to say that we’re moving toward an integrated report in our effort show how this is now integrated in our overall plan…why we closed down our CSR department. Sustainability [for us is] integrated, truly embedded across our value chain.”

The company also hosted a live by-invitation-only event in London with 100 senior sustainability influencers to discuss the next iteration of the Plan: an expansion to include three specific social targets:

  • Fairness in the workplace [“We have been working with Oxfam on the condition of factory workers in our extended supply chain in Vietnam – and the lessons we have learned we’re taking global, including a new sourcing policy, which makes clear basic levels of human rights that suppliers must adhere to.“]
  • Opportunities for women [“By 2020, we want to help empower five million women. They’re a key part of our international supply chain.”]
  • Developing inclusive business [“Like our Shakti model in India“]

unilever sustainable living planAnd a re-emphasis of what it considers its most critical challenges:

And a re-emphasis of what it considers its most critical challenges:

  • Helping combat climate change by working to eliminate deforestation, which accounts for up to 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions
  • Improving food security by championing sustainable agriculture, and improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers who produce 80 percent of the food in Asia and Sub Saharan Africa
  • Improving health and well-being by helping more than a billion people gain access to safe drinking water, proper sanitation and good hygiene habits.

The Rarity of Receiving Honest Feedback

I was catching up with Weed – who was among the initial creators of the USLP and continues to lead it across the organization today – right after the live event. And he was in a good mood. “In its early days, everyone was genuinely impressed [with the USLP] and were always polite in giving us feedback. They were probably also scared of scaring us off. But now, three years in, they’re more open with their feedback,” he told me.

The company is making good progress.

Besides good results from its #Iwashmyhands and #toilets4all campaigns, for example, some of the reported highlights include:

  • Over 75 percent of its factories have achieved zero non-hazardous waste to landfill
  • A new technology would reduce plastic in its Dove body wash packaging by 15 percent
  • Forty eight percent of agricultural raw materials are now from sustainable sources, up from 14 percent in 2010,
  • It completed training over 570,000 smallholder farmers and increased the number of Shakti women micro-entrepreneurs in India from 48,000 in 2012 to 65,000 in 2013
  • Avoided costs of €350million since 2008 in reducing raw materials and implementing eco-efficiency measures in factories on energy, water and waste
  • Launched compressed versions of its Sure, Dove, Vaseline deodorants across the U.K., which equal to 25 percent of CO2 savings per can.

As Weed counted off, “We’ve integrated USLP into our core business, brands like Lifebuoy are experiencing double-digit growth signifying that integrating sustainability in the core of your brand works, we’re creating less waste, saving money, creating eco efficiencies across our value chain, and if positioned right, can have everyone involved engaged.”

Unilever on TwitterDemonstrating the [Sustainability] Case Internally

“But perhaps the most important highlight is that we are starting to show progress against our commitments and core belief [about integrated sustainability into our business] internally,” he added.

But other challenges emerged.

“Although water usage across our manufacturing facilities was down, when you take into account our entire value chain, it actually went up as did our greenhouse gas emissions. Also scale is tough.”

And the need for good partners.

“We’re stepping up working with others on transformational change. We’ve learned a lot in the last three years. We need to work with others. For example, deforestation contributes 15 percent of GHG – we’ve been doing a lot of work on palm oil by ourselves. Now [we want to] expand the efforts to government and civil society so that we can get to zero net deforestation by 2020,” he added.

Challenges: Finding Partners, Changing Habits

For a brand as diversified and exposed as Unilever, finding partners that share ideologies are critical as is changing consumer behavior.

Last year, we collaborated with the Unilever team on a communication strategy that told the USLP story as well as helped the company engage in critical dialogue with its diverse audience. Besides a detailed blog series penned by Sustainability Chief Gail Klintworth that took us behind the scenes and on the ground with the USLP goals – and a live Twitter chat that generated hundreds of questions – one of the toughest challenges that emerged was influencing consumer behavior.

And some things are finally starting to shift.

Like the 180 million people who now know how to wash their hands properly. Or the 55 million who now have access to safe drinking water.  Or the 70 million people who have already watched/engaged with Unilever’s innovative Project Sunlight.

“The point is to make sustainable living commonplace. We’re an optimistic company – if you get engaged, let’s work together,” said Weed. “Stakeholders are telling us they felt this was very much a part of our business. People are sitting up and talking.”

Numbers aside, changing habits is hard – and it remains the company’s toughest challenge. “We’re using everything we can from celebrities to local partners and rewards. They say it takes 30 days to change a habit. Initiatives like Project Sunlight are important because of this,” he said.

Or the decision to replace current deodorants with compressed versions. “People see smaller cans and think it’s not value for money,” Weed offered. “But if there is any company that has the resolve to take on these challenges, it’s us. We know markets, scale, know how.”

So what’s next?

Engagement, engagement and more engagement. As the marketing chief put it, “We need to engage more people to think beyond their own communities and families. It will happen.”

More about the USLP Refresh here.

Originally written for and published on CSRwire’s Commentary section Talkback on April 29, 2014.